Etape Pennines

Who would’ve thought that County Durham had so many hills? An endless supply of cruel sniggering climbs. A course recce would have been a very bad idea. It really was just as well I did not know what awaited as I’d surely never have got as far as the start line. The hills were endless, just one nightmare after another – and when you think it’s all over, you turn a corner, and there’s another one. I think that’s why Colin played his Get out of Jail Free card – he lives on the coal face – he knew.

Dusting of the Alan Super Record for an early start

It was Colin’s announcement the day before that he wouldn’t be starting that made me start paying attention. Just as well – I hadn’t realised you had to register on the Saturday, just like a marathon expo. I also made the mistake of having a look at the suggested training plans on the website and thus denting my naivete. I really shouldn’t have. The training plan for people with limited time was 6-8 hours a week. I’d been cycling to work off and on for 2 or 3 months. That was about 3 hours or 30 miles a week. On average, when I wasn’t running between breweries. That should be enough surely? Yeah. And I’ve got all this core fitness stuff from running. Everything would be just fine. Just. Fine. And then there was the ‘minimum average speed’ of 13.1 MPH. I checked my average speed for cycling from Durham to Gateshead and it wasn’t quite 13.1, it wasn’t even close, and it doesn’t even have any 2nd category climbs.

Sunrise at Ushaw College

We couldn’t have wished for better weather and the sun rose as I waited at Ushaw College for my start time. I was in the last zone to go and we pushed off under a clear dawn sky. This was the first road race I’d done for over 25 years and I was a little out of touch. So used to running now I’d forgotten about wind-chill and cold hands. So much so that two miles later I had to stop and pull the gloves from my pocket that I’d thankfully shoved in as a last-minute thought. Fumbling with the Velcro on my mitts and trying to decide whether to pull the gloves over or instead of, I became aware of a motorbike that had stopped and pulled up alongside me. I looked up and knew. Nearly 2000 riders, but I’d still managed it. Just like a fell race. Situation Normal. “You’re the sweeper, aren’t you?” I said miserably. He nodded, and asked me if I was ok. I nodded feebly and began to feel a bit pathetic and sorry for myself. I was cold and at the back of a field of over a thousand riders and this was not going well. I struggled to get my mitts in my back pocket without much success before simply handing them over to a marshall who’d come over to assist, and asked him to do it for me.

It took several miles before I got warmed up and gradually become more confident. I steadily passed people, hopping from wheel to wheel and taking pace whenever possible. I used to race on the steep banks of Meadowbank velodrome and so was at ease riding in close groups and found it a gloriously exhilarating experience riding on closed roads so near to so many other riders. It was nostalgia and excitement rolled into a lovely sunny autumnal Pennine morning. My draughting was parasitic, not deliberately so, it was just that few people seemed willing to work, or simply misunderstood and thought I was trying to get past and moved over to let me through. As it happened the opportunities for sharing the pace were fairly limited to early in the race as pacing works best on flattish stretches into the wind, and when the hills started, both up and down, the advantages of taking pace were negligible.

We passed the 15 mile marker and I was, as Danny once put it, in terra incognita. I hadn’t ridden more than 15 miles in one go in more than 25 years, so I awaited with interest to see which parts of my body would start to hurt first. I was riding the race as I would run a marathon, taking it steady early on and conserving energy as I knew it would get a bit rough towards the end. The hills loomed ahead and I caught Peter Brooks who was chirpilly stoical after having an unfortunately eventful journey to the start. Later, as the King of the Mountains pass lazed into view I took my hands of the bars to scrunch my cape into my pocket. This looked like hot work. A Darlington rider remarked that this was ‘skilled riding for a 2000 number’ and I wasn’t too sure how to take it. I was about to take umbrage until I realised he’d meant it as a genuine compliment

A sunny hill. Smile for the camera.

And then the hills began. And once they started, they simply did not stop. Like an early morning session hunched over the great white telephone after an all-night bender when your body is racked with pain, when you think, surely there’s nothing left, when your body is just a spent, rasping, empty, husk, there’s another bit, then another, then another. Where was it all coming from?

Unlike fell racing, where it’s often quicker and more energy efficient to walk up the hills, the opposite is true with cycling, where walking in cycling shoes, even on level ground, is an achievement in itself. I managed to climb all the hills and made a lot of gains. My bike was also attracting some attention. One of the very first aluminium frames, bought for me for £120 in the early 1980s by my Dad and hand-built with Campagnolo equipment throughout, it is pretty much unchanged to how it was 30 years ago. Apart from the tubs, which I rather sensibly replaced on Saturday before the race, and prayed that the 10 year old tub tape that I’d found in a drawer was still sticky. Or at least, sticky-ish, for those 40MPH+ descents. Climbing slowly past one lady on one climb she commented “that’s a lovely bike”, and one chap at the final feeding station called it “gorgeous”. Perhaps it was a combination of the toughness of the race and the stunning scenery but I was finding these unexpected compliments were making me feel quite melancholy.

I’d remembered from the course map that there was one Category 2 climb, and that it was, as you might expect, in the last 10 miles. On the scale of awfulness it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared but I was overtaken by a bloke who was quite simply whimpering a series of shuddering and wholesome profanities that seemed to be directed at no-one in particular, although the hill seemed to be implicated. The last few miles went by quite quickly and then the beautiful sight of the red timing mats of the finish.

The Finish

A few minutes later I was looking down at my medal and thought how you get medals for all sorts of races nowadays, practically giving them away they are, for the most noddy of events. But this one I clutched in my hot sweaty hand and thought, I really earned this one.

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